The Role of “Think Pieces”
The opiate of the elite liberal masses
If you read mainstream newspapers and magazines, you’ve probably seen a lot of “think pieces” about the definitive meaning of last week’s elections. Specifically, there have been a number of opinion articles in elite magazines about the recall of the progressive DA in San Francisco by famous writers:
There is a revealing thing at the heart of these pieces. If you get past the flowery writing that these magazines cultivate as an aesthetic facade to mask a lack of evidentiary rigor, what’s going on is a pretty fascinating fraud.
In my last newsletter, I wrote about some of the striking biases and outright misinformation in the standard news coverage of these elections. The “news” coverage of the elections tended to ignore or downplay the many progressive victories on “criminal justice reform” while drawing outlandish and monumental lessons from a couple progressive losses. The opinion pieces I want to analyze today, however, serve a different but complimentary function.
As a preliminary note, each of these “think pieces” is embarrassing in many of the ways I highlighted in the news coverage: falsehoods or assertions designed to mislead, comical one-sided sourcing, lack of basic understanding of empirical evidence or law, faux-intellectual drivel, etc. But I want to focus this post on one core fraud.
All of these articles (it basically doesn’t matter which one you read) have one thing in common: they lament the supposed fall of San Francisco, as shown by the supposed “disorder” of homelessness, filthy street tents, rampant mental illness, low-level theft, and open-air drugs.
Several of the articles go so far as to express compassion for drug users and homeless people. Take a look at the Atlantic:
A couple of years ago, one of my friends saw a man staggering down the street, bleeding. She recognized him as someone who regularly slept outside in the neighborhood, and called 911. Paramedics and police arrived and began treating him, but members of a homeless advocacy group noticed and intervened. They told the man that he didn’t have to get into the ambulance, that he had the right to refuse treatment. So that’s what he did. The paramedics left; the activists left. The man sat on the sidewalk alone, still bleeding. A few months later, he died about a block away.
Setting aside how strange it is to grant anonymity to a source for a dubious and misleading anecdote like this in a leading journalistic outfit as the support for the author’s core claim about the holistic failure of progressive institutions in U.S. society, take a look at the Atlantic writer’s conclusion. Like many of the other writers, they insinuate that soft progressives with “good intentions” are actually the “cruel” ones because it was their fault that this homeless person died in this anonymous anecdote:
I used to tell myself that San Francisco’s politics were wacky but the city was trying—really trying—to be good. But the reality is that with the smartest minds and so much money and the very best of intentions, San Francisco became a cruel city. It became so dogmatically progressive that maintaining the purity of the politics required accepting—or at least ignoring—devastating results.
All of these think pieces then make a simple move: Each article’s central theme is that removal of “progressive DA” was a natural response to problems of inequality, homelessness, drug use, mental illness, etc. In other words, the recall was not product of a massive misinformation campaign or the extreme spending by Republican billionaires and the police union. And, according to these authors, each of these social and economic issues was the fault of a progressive DA and progressive city leaders and not soaring inequality, a local government captured by real estate developers, a lack of affordable housing, massive divestment in California and federal mental health services, etc. It was mainly the fault of a progressive DA. What’s remarkable is that none of the articles explains why this would be.
None of the articles in all these fancy publications explains which specific DA policies were responsible for the “disorder” of inequality in San Fransisco. Which DA policy increased homelessness? Which DA policy caused the Fentanyl epidemic?
Interestingly, although ignored by the writers, when separated from Boudin himself, each of the DA’s major progressive policies that he actually implemented were very popular with SF voters. (And in the recall election, the DA actually received far more votes than he did in his initial election in 2019, where he was elected against a crowded field in a ranked-choice voting mechanism.)
Twitter avatar for @equalityAlec
But there was a fraud that isn’t as noticeable. NYT omitted that reform policies of SF DA were popular. Each of his major issues (not prosecuting kids, cash bail, wrongful convictions, worker protection, going after corrupt cops, and more) polled with big support:
June 9th 2022
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Moreover, property and violent crime actually went down under the “progressive” DA, whose policies seem like a huge success when using nearly every conventional crime and budget metric. The articles ignore these actual facts in favor of a general feeling that the “vibe” in San Francisco is one of disorder and malaise.
Twitter avatar for @petercalloway
Over the same period, rape, robbery, and assault *decreased* by 47% (-191), 27% (-851), and 6% (-160). So, violent crime (which the SFPD categorizes as homicide, rape, robbery, and assault) decreased by 19% (-1187). Property crime over that period is down by 11% (-6083).
And so here is the most incredible thing about all the opinion articles in the national magazines: none of the “think pieces” contains a statement of what the authors are proposing instead. Life in prison for drugs? Mandatory 10 years in a cage for public camping? Detention camps and involuntary electroshock for mentally ill? Jailing people who can’t afford to pay cash bail? Prosecuting all children as adults? Whipping people in public if they urinate when they can’t find a public bathroom? What exactly?
Why are none of these really smart people talking about what the actual stakes of the recall are? All of these smart people know very well what the right-wing recall organizers from the police union and Republican donors want: more criminal prosecution and more prison. They all know that the consequence of the recall and the consequences of similar efforts across the country against relatively minor progressive reformers will be a different prosecutor who sends a lot more poor people to jail and prison and separates a lot more poor parents from their children.
But none of these smart writers with establishment liberal audiences are acknowledging these brutal policy consequences in these fancy faux-intellectual think pieces. Why? I think there are two main reasons.
First, social scientists have shown that longer sentences don’t deter crime. And studies show that reducing low-level actually prosecutions *decreases* crime. And overwhelming scientific evidence shows that more prosecution doesn’t fix problems of inequality. The idea that sending more people to prison would lead to less drug use, for example, is one of the most discredited ideas in the entire field, and it leads to massive harm.
These agenda-setting writers don’t want to talk about actual policy because the positions they are tacitly boosting are like climate science denial: every serious scholar knows you don’t solve homelessness, drug use, mental illness with more prosecution and prisons. The Atlantic, the New Yorker, New York Magazine, and the New York Times don’t want that debate.
This probably explains why typical standards for journalistic rigor–fact-checking, a pretense of neutrality, basic knowledge of the subject matter, respect for evidence, attempt to allow contrary perspectives to explain their views–are dispensed with by respected publications.
Second, because they are sophisticated, these writers know they would lose their liberal card if they suggested caging people for being homeless, mentally ill, or drugs. That’s what Republicans want! So, they obfuscate what they are actually proposing. The function of “think pieces” like this is to achieve same outcomes without saying quiet part out loud.
Each article is thus a good example of what I call copaganda cat nip for liberals: the function is to hide the brutality of what is actually being suggested to make people think they can still be good liberals but support massive bureaucratic state violence and science-denial. This is the key point:
The “tough on crime” politicians pushing Democrats toward electoral failure aren’t even tough on crime, at least if one follows scientific evidence. Their policies lead to more crime, exactly because they don’t address root causes. I wrote about this in my book, Usual Cruelty:
That important function is why so many of these “think pieces” are published at such important moments of political consciousness around elections. A lot of people benefit from tricking well-meaning people into thinking that the problems they see in their communities don’t have root causes that need massive investments, but are instead problems that can be solved by giving more and more money to profiteering bureaucrats for more surveillance and punishment.
Ironically, these articles are therefore like fentanyl for well-educated liberals. It’s like pumping a drug into their veins that gives them the momentary bliss of thinking that we don’t need structural changes to make our society more equal.
But consuming stuff like this is killing all of us fast.